At last the BBC has worked out what to do with Graham Norton. The series How Do You Solve a Problem Like Graham? (sorry, silly me, Like Maria) has just ended and it was so achingly, screamingly, dementedly camp it made its host, clad in a suit which appeared to have been woven from aluminium thread with velour trimmings, seem by comparison as straight as Jeremy Paxman. Oh, the frocks, the heels, the lip gloss, the magenta and lime strip lighting, the audience stuffed with plump mums, and of course The Sound of Music itself! I guess that in gay pubs up and down the land they had blackboards outside boasting ‘Live, on the giant screen, Maria final!’ in the way that other pubs offer Man U v. Arsenal.
Older readers may remember the Mekon, the green interplanetary villain who hovered over the Dan Dare adventures on a flying saucer. He bore more than a passing resemblance to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who appeared similarly poised above the proceedings, though the Mekon lacked the weight of the bags under his lordship’s eyes, which could not have been legally taken on board a plane for the past few weeks. The series, apparently interminable, was designed to find someone to play Maria in a Lloyd Webber version of TSOM in the West End, and we were supposed to share his exquisite agony as he waited to find out if the two million viewers who voted had made the right choice. The tabloids reported mutterings behind the scenes that the BBC had, in subtle ways, turned the contest in favour of the eventual winner, a comely young woman called Connie, though she was so obviously the best of the bunch it would have been hardly worth the effort to rig the result. Indeed, she was so good that I very much doubt that in five years’ time she will be reduced to opening supermarkets and may still be in the West End.
But it’s a promising formula which would work on many levels. I look forward to a musical based on Psycho (‘I stabbed and stabbed and stabbed again, So that was the end of Marion Crane!’) with a contest to find a singing Norman Bates. I’d stay in to watch that.
Jamie Oliver’s Return to School Dinners (Channel 4, Monday) was a deeply depressing programme. What it boiled down to was that far too many people just don’t care what their children eat, that local authorities are indifferent, and that government ministers will do a little bit if it’s on television. Or, rather, some will. I thought the programme was very bad news for Alan Johnson, who, we are told, might be the next deputy leader of the Labour party, or even prime minister. Jamie went to see him to ask the government to ban junk food in schools. ‘There are issues of personal liberty here,’ waffled the education secretary, who admittedly had been in office for only two weeks at the time. ‘We would not dictate to parents,’ he added, to which Jamie replied crisply, ‘But we do on drugs, and stuff.’
Johnson tried to pass the buck to the local authorities. Oliver asked him to ring-fence the money for kitchens. The minister said vaguely that he would check it out, but he could make no promises for three years ahead. ‘Does that mean our boys will be out of Iraq, then?’ asked Oliver pertly, and at that point a civil servant walked into shot saying, ‘I think…’, meaning ‘you’ve had your lot, clear off’. Johnson looked evasive and unconcerned. Tony Blair, at the end of the programme, looked evasive and very, very tired. But at least he offered to double the money. Blair, even at the end of his rope, instinctively knows what to do when a camera crew turns up.
Meanwhile, the rest of the show was one disappointment after another. A school in Greenwich spent 37p — 37p! — on the raw materials for each meal, and still couldn’t break even without selling fat-saturated, chemical rubbish to the same children. So the school decided not to try. Parents in Lincolnshire couldn’t be bothered to cough up enough for their kids to get half reasonable food which, it turned out, was being cooked by a pub chef who cut more corners than Michael Schumacher. The children who get the worst diets have parents who are too stressed and too poor either to prepare good food, to pay for it, or to stop their offspring from insisting on a diet of Cheesy Wotsits, Coke and Snickers. Most of these Channel 4 specials end on a note of artificial hope; this was almost unremittingly awful, and somehow the worst part was Blair’s promise to double spending for an extra three years — we know he won’t be there.
James Delingpole wrote about Extras last week, but I did want to chip in to say that the second episode was even better than the first. What is the name for a genre of comedy that you watch through your fingers? Sit-cringe? Like Shakespeare’s low lifes, Andy’s own dire sitcom reflects the same embarrassment as the main plot, though it could hardly be worse. The scene when David Bowie improvised a song to humiliate Andy in a showbiz club went way beyond humour and became horror.